Is This Age-Appropriate?

As I mentioned last week, we just finished our first rack and returns of the 2013 vintage- a process the wine will undergo 2 to 8 more times during its time in barrel.  This time in barrel is where the true magic begins through what we call the aging process.

WINE AGING- GOOD!  PEOPLE AGING-MEH…

Ok, so the magic I refer to is mainly chemistry- which I don’t find particularly magical, more migraine-producing-so I will try to keep some of the magic and minimize the chemistry.  It all starts with that giver of life, the all-important element of oxygen.

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 Being that a barrel is not a hermetically sealed container, oxygen seeps into the barrels at a rate of 2-5 ml/L per year- depending on the thickness and type of wood used for the barrel.    Oxygen is also available to the wine in the small amount of air-space that occurs between the opening of the barrel and the surface of the wine or the “ullage” (they have a name for everything). This ingress of oxygen causes changes in color, bouquet, structure and stability in the wine.  Chemistry alert!  There are many different, specific, complex reactions that occur when oxygen is exposed to the wine (uh oh, I feel a headache coming on…).  Magic alert!  The oxygen combines with oxidizable and reducing substances already in the wine resulting in the color of the wine to stabilize,  the bouquet to bloom, and the phenolic components to intensify and mature.  Phew, I can put away the Advil away now.

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This is just the basic reaction- your cooperage ultimately affects how these reactions play out.  Each forest from where the oak to make the barrels comes from (if you want more info on this, I did a post about a year ago on barrels) will give its own flavor and supporting tannin components.  Grain density will dictate how much interaction there will be with oxygen.  All of these variables along with size of the barrels, toasting will all have different impacts on the wine.

For Naggiar specifically, we age all of our reds in barrels, both large format (130-150 gallons to 540 gallons) and the standard 60 gallon barrel.  We use different sized barrels, different coopers, different forests, different grain types, and different toast levels for different varietals and programs (that must be a record for the use of the word different in one sentence).  All of our barrels are 2-3 year air-seasoned barrels and we never toast our heads- but hey, to each his own.  We use predominately French Oak at a ratio of 30% new to 70% used.  We do use a small amount of American Oak.  And before you go presuming that French Oak is superior to American Oak- it isn’t- it just happens to work with our varietals and barrel regimen (how we first go to barrel, longevity in barrels, size of barrels, flavor and tannins we are looking for).  Go team USA!

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So, take away lesson, oxygen is a magical, miraculous element that helps wine become the  magical, miraculous beverage that it is.  And if you want anti-aging, it’s great for facials!  And yeah, we kind of need it to live so we can drink wine (maybe, while we are getting a facial.)

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Racking My Brain For A Subject

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I try to have my posts follow what it going on at the winery, in the vineyards, even California as a whole, which usually works out pretty well- except now that I have passed my one year anniversary, I run the risk of redundancy.  This week, we are doing our first bottling of the year, and being that I have already covered bottling, way, way back, I had to rack my brain for another topic.  Hmm, rack my brain… I just had to see what we were doing the week before when I was talking viruses and voila- we were doing “rack and returns”.  Pretty convenient, huh?

So what do I mean by rack and returns?  A rack and return is basically a decanting of wine on a very large scale.  We transfer the wine from barrel to tank and then back to barrel, taking every precaution possible to ensure that we leave all of the sediment on the bottom of the barrels.  Once we have removed the wine from the barrels, we discard the lees

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(that yummy-looking gook on the bottom of the barrels made up primarily of dead yeast cells) rinse the barrels of any remaining lees and tartrate crystals, and steam the barrels seven minutes to take care of any malingering bacteria or yeast, and bonus- no harsh chemicals involved.  The barrels are then allowed to dry overnight.  We flip them over the following morning and smell each barrel- if they smell like a toasted oak barrel, we are good to go, if it smells as if the barrels have run a couple of laps around the vineyard during the night, then it’s time for another bath.

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There are a few reasons why we do rack and returns:  decanting (already mentioned this), cleaning the barrels (that one too), aeration (getting to it) and homogenization or blending (I’m on it).  As for the blending, while the barrels are drying, the winemaker tastes through the blended lot in tank, performs necessary analysis (free SO2, pH, and volatile acidity) and at that point determines whether we return the wine to the same barrels or change up the cooperage to enhance the wine.  As for aeration, the wine is automatically aerated through the process of racking.  This is helpful for blowing off some of the fermentative aromas, particularly in the current vintage as well as helping to stabilize the wine.

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This current round of rack and returns will take 3-4 weeks to complete. The whole process occurs anywhere from two to eight times over a wine’s life in barrel, this being determined by the harvest, varietal, and program the wine is designated for.  So with this much-needed super-soaking we’ve received over the last few days, all I can say is       “Rack On Man!”

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Is There A Doctor In The House?

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It’s that time of year- going into your kid’s classroom and seeing three-quarters of them with gook coming out of their noses,  daily news reports on the flu epidemic, loading up on ibuprofen and Nyquil- virus season.  All of the talk about the extra-severe flu season this year had me thinking-hmm, potential blog post- what happens when our plant friends are infected with a virus?  I went to the winemaker with this question and he got a strange gleam in his eye, but knowing better now, gave me the highlights on an expansive, yet fascinating  subject.  And by all means, if there is something you want covered more in-depth, just comment and I’d be happy to get you the answer.

One of the biggest challenges a winegrower must deal with (aside from lack of rain) is the health of the vineyard.  Vines, like humans, are susceptible to different viruses that can range in severity.  Some are minor (think common cold) causing subtle variations in leaf color and growth and others (think Smallpox virus) that can cause vine death.  The intensity of the symptoms depends on multiple factors- availability of water, cultural practices,  and the clone and rootstock you have chosen.  However, symptoms themselves can make diagnosis difficult- while some symptoms are diagnostic in nature,  many can look like each other so the virus causing them is not clear. In many cases, the symptoms may not exhibit themselves for years- like an extremely long incubation period- and so, just because there is an absence of symptoms,  this does not mean the grapevines are free of virus.

As of now, there are over 60 different viruses that vines are susceptible to.  The most famous, nee’ infamous virus outbreak in recent memory was the Phylloxera infestation of the 90’s that hammered the grape growing industry and resulted in massive re-plantings (a blessing in disguise- future blog post alert!)

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Leaf with symptomatic Phylloxera

Phylloxera occurred because of the susceptibility of a particular rootstock designated with the code AXR#1- so don’t pick that a password or anything because it’s unlucky!  While viruses like Phylloxera and Nepovirus tell you nothing about about the damage they inflict on the vine, others have more descriptive names telling you exactly what they are up to:  Fan Leaf Degeneration, Leaf Roll, Corky Bark, Ruepestris Stem Pitting, and most recently, Red Blotch.

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Rupestris Stem Pitting

The bad news is once the vineyard has a virus, there is nothing you can do to get rid of it, short of ripping out all of the infected vines- no taking 2 aspirin, eating some chicken soup and waiting it out.  The best way to deal with viruses is to avoid them all together- hey, the best offense is a good defense- just ask the Seahawks.  The best way to start is to try to ensure you have clean material when planting a vineyard- something that takes time, patience and a reputable nursery to work with.  As with human viruses, you want to keep the virus from spreading.  With vines, it’s not about coughing into your elbow, washing your hands and refraining from sneezing in someone’s face, it’s all about the vectors.  A vector is the catch-all term for any pest that aids in transmitting viruses from vine to vine.  Any wine-growing region will be glad to put you on the alert for the glassy-wing sharp-shooter, a pest responsible for spreading the virus that causes Pierce’s Disease.  There are also mealy bugs and root lice- the pest responsible for the spread of Phylloxera.

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Glassy wing Sharpshooter                     Mealy bug                                          Root louse

When pest vector infestation is particularly heavy, fumigation with various nematicides and insecticides may be needed.  Knowing where you are planting and using the correct rootstocks is tremendously helpful overall, as well.  The good news is although almost all vineyards end up with some sort of virus that will cause vine death in the end, the vines can still be productive for a long time despite the viral infection.  We all gotta go sometime, and can’t ask too much more than being able to do what you’re meant to do for as long as possible.

On a happier note, I’m sure you’ve all heard the good news that we finally got some precipitation and have more in the forecast!  Now, I’m not saying it was all me, but I did wash my car and the rain started two days later…

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Versatile Viognier

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To step back from the doom and gloom of last week’s post- don’t worry, I have another one of the sort planned for next week- I thought a nice happy post on a spotlight grape varietal would be just the ticket.  Since the few blogs I’ve done on varietals have been red varietals, I’m giving white ones a chance.  As you may have guessed from the extremely enigmatic title, the winemaker chose Viognier as his favorite white varietal grown at Naggiar.  So why Viognier?  Along with the fact that he tends to identify with the ABC contingent (anything but chardonnay), it is the white varietal that is predominantly planted at Naggiar.  Ok, he has a disclaimer in there that “Chardonnay can be a wonderful varietal when made correctly in California” as well as being very malleable, but Viogner is- here it comes- the most versatile white varietal out there.  Viognier, along with being a more food-centric varietal,  can be like anything from a flinty Sauvignon Blanc to a lush Chardonnay, all at once.  Think of it as the Tom Hanks of grape varietals.

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Viognier originally comes from the Rhone river valley in the south of France.  Rhone varietals grow really well in the Sierra foothills as the climates of the two regions are similar.  To ripen properly, Viognier needs a good amount of heat during the day but cooler nights.  If it gets too much heat over the 24 hour day, it tends to be oxidized and heavily alcoholic (hmm, sounds like a few people I know).  Conversely, if there is not enough heat, you get a product that gives you the feeling you might need to visit your gastroenterologist for an acid reflux problem.  As I mentioned, Viognier is the most planted white varietal at Naggiar with four different blocks of it throughout the vineyard and two different clones on various rootstocks.

As to the winemaking aspect, we pick the fruit on the earlier side and then ferment the Viognier in a mixture of stainless steel and wood, but predominantly in steel.  We even use a portion of it to ferment with various red varietals to help fix color and add a nice floral aspect to the wine.  We use Viognier both as a varietal program and in our proprietary white blends, those being our Mama Mia, Trois Demoiselles, Bellissima, and Contessa.  Our current varietal Viognier is the 2011 vintage characterized by aromas of peach, pineapple, honeydew, and jasmine with hints of oak and a long smooth finish.  This wine pairs well with light chicken and seafood dishes as well as mild spiced ones.  If you have a hankering for dessert after, well, we have got you covered there as well as we make a late harvest Viognier-one of two dessert wines we have.  If you are thinking rich and creamy, like cheesecake or creme brûlée, then our late harvest Viognier is a perfect sidekick.

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As you can see, we have quite a selection of Viognier wines to choose from.  We’d love to see you up here where you can taste the wines to find out which one you like best.  Even better, buy a bottle of it and enjoy it a home while watching a movie- say Castaway or Forrest Gump.

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Is It Some Other Day, Yet?

You may be wondering “what kind of title is that ?” and “how the heck does that relate to a wine blog!”  Think back to your childhood, look out the window to a cloudy day, and in a singsong voice, repeat after me…

Rain rain go away come again some other day…

We are desperately waiting for some other day here in California.  This is the driest winter on record- so bad that the governor has declared a state of emergency in preparation for what looks to be an extremely dry summer.  To give you an idea of how bad it is, Las Vegas has received more rain than we have this what-is-passing-for winter

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Right now, the state government is asking nicely for everyone to reduce water usage by 20%.  According to the Nevada Irrigation District, we are currently looking at a 50% reduction of water for agriculture.  If the current weather pattern holds and we get very little rain, freshwater fish will be impacted and may struggle to survive so the 50% reduction will become mandatory- as in the N.I.D. will reduce all agricultural water flow to 50% of normal.  Not only that, we will be paying more for less water.  Water… the new liquid gold.

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So, now that I’ve given the dire forecast, just what does the mean for us- Naggiar- or the wine industry as a whole?  This water reduction would especially impact us at Naggiar due to the soil we have here- it retains very little water, making irrigation a must in the absence of rain.  The vines rely on water to bring nutrients up from the soil to begin the new growth and with no water in the soil from rainfall and limited water from reduced irrigation, the new growth cycle gets off to a very weak start.  This effect will be amplified if we get any heat spells during the water reduction, starting off with physical damage to the leaves, wilting, desiccation, death and leaf loss. This causes inefficient photosynthesis which in turn, causes chemical changes in the berry skins and pulp, leading to no sugar and flavor/tannin development.  In the worst case scenario, the vines will cease operation, the fruit will all dry up and eventually the vine will die.

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To help mitigate this, first and foremost we will be doing the rain dance, praying to all deities (hey, the Muslims and Catholics each took turns a few weeks ago to pray for rain) -any suggestions?- to get some rain to come down.  If somehow we get substantial precipitation in the coming months (the Farmer’s Almanac says it’s supposed be a wet February) it would not come close to filling the reservoirs, but could ease the situation.  However, the Lord helps those who help themselves so we will do our best to roll with the situation and manipulate our irrigation schedule and rely on creative canopy management.

Who knew a cloudy, rainy, stormy day could bring so much joy and happiness?

Heavy Downpour

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And To Top It All Off…

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Every four weeks we do what is called topping in the winery.  Wine evaporates through the pores in the barrel, what we call topping loss or what others, particularly those that age spirits, refer to as the “angels’ share”.  Now, we don’t begrudge the angels their share (it’s good to have happy angels) but we do try to minimize this loss by keeping the barrels in a high humidity environment (ideally 70%)  as low humidity accelerates this loss.  For those of us who do not have the luxury of a wine cave, which has a natural high humidity, there are humidifiers that micronize water droplets and spray them across the winery, slowly building up the humidity.  However, after four weeks, enough wine has evaporated to create problems aside from the obvious one that if left to it’s own devices, you would have little wine left by the time it’s ready to bottle.

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As part of our quality control measures, when we top the barrel (fill it to the brim) we also adjust the free sulfur dioxide (FSO2) levels- FSO2 acts as an anti-microbial and anti-oxidizing agent.   When there is too much headspace (or ullage if you want a fancy wine term for it) or the FSO2 levels are off you have a much greater chance of bad things happening to your wine:  you could get film yeast development, aldehyde increase-which is not good unless you are making a sherry, or an increase in volatile acidity (VA) which gives the wine the dreaded vinegar aroma.  The entire process- sampling the wine, testing, adding FSO2 when needed and finally the topping- takes us an entire week.  We just finished the topping for January last week- hopefully, the angels enjoyed their share and will send us some rain as a thank-you!

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Time To Lose A Few Inches

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So, honestly, how many out there have this resolution or something akin to it (lose ten pounds, ditch the muffin-top, whittle the love handles, etc.) at the top of their January to-do list?  Well, you can count the vines at Naggiar amongst those looking to shave off a few inches- a whopping 75 percent of what they gained over the past year.  In humans, we achieve this through varied methods- from cross fit classes, cleanses, juicing, paleo diets, or even good old moderation, with the vines, we get it done with a little pre-pruning.

This week we finally got the whole crew back from vacation and item number one was to begin pre-pruning.  There really are two distinct phases to pruning: the pre-pruning which we have just begun, where the bulk of last years growth is removed and final pruning, done in March-April, where we make the final pruning decisions based on what the spring weather has brought us.  There are three reasons why we pre-prune as opposed to trying to get it done in one go- I mean, who really wants to go through and do the same thing twice if it can be done once?  First, it’s a really big job.  In pre-pruning, we remove 75 percent of the vertical growth, while leaving behind about 4-5 buds that we will prune down right before bud-break.  This part of pruning is very time-consuming as not only do we have to remove the vertical growth, but also the tendrils from the shoots that have wound themselves around the trellis wires.  Anyone who has experience with any kind of vine, knows they grow out tendrils that have a knack for attaching themselves to everything within reach (hmm, I seem to be part vine, as my offspring often exhibit this characteristic).  Now dormant, all of those lovely green shoots have hardened into a tough, woody maze and we are armed with nothing but a pair of red-handled pruning shears; thus time-consuming.  Which brings me to reason number two- pre-pruning enables us to move faster during final pruning as final pruning within a block should be done at the same time so the vines grow evenly.  Third, by pre-pruning, we can prune later in the winter or early spring, delaying the onset of bud break and hopefully, skipping the frost.  Mother Nature does not always cooperate, but it does push things back by 10-14 days.  And, if I may add a fourth reason, it automatically takes care of a blog topic for me this March or April.

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It takes 4-5 weeks to completely pre-prune the entire ranch.  But what, you might be wondering, do we do with all of the pruned shoots?  Seventy-five percent of vine growth from 60-odd acres of vines makes for a pretty large mess and there’s only so many grape-vine wreaths one can make.  While the pre-pruning is going on, our ranch manager, Salvador, will be following the crew with a flail-mower, chopping up the canes into small pieces.  So not only does this make it easier to move safely amongst the vines without tripping, it also hastens the decomposition rate so it can help provide nutrients for this year’s growth- sounds like a song I know (the circle, the circle of life…)

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To address a weather question we have been asked numerous times recently- YES! the complete lack of rain is very worrisome so if anyone has any cloud seeds, special rain dances, magic beans (wrong fairytale) leprechauns (getting desperate here) or good old fashioned prayer, we could sure use any and all as we are in perilous need of precipitation!

Heavy Downpour

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